A prominent UK organic expert has asked if regulation has become a threat to the “open-source, citizen-owned” concept of organic.
In a special paper delivered at last week’s European Organic Conference in Tallinn, professor Nic Lampkin* returned to organic fundamentals . “I want to go back to the roots of organic farming and the idea of the farm as organism,” he told delegates.
He said that organic’s origins predate even Rudolf Steiner, and were the product of “a century of development of ideas from thousands of people globally, representing a wide range of practical farming and theoretical backgrounds”. Organic was not always scientific, he added, because it “isn’t only scientists who input to it”. He added that, crucially, organic was “an open-source concept not owned by corporations, institutions or governments”.
In organic’s development, the market “arrived as a means to one end”, said Lampkin. “The market is so dominant now that people think it is an end in itself. Yet it is really a support mechanism”.
“The market is so dominant now that people think it is an end in itself. Yet it is really a support mechanism”
Lampkin said that regulation was, of course, important. “It serves a valuable purpose. For example, it provides recognition from governments that organic approaches have value for society and provides a formal basis for trade, protection for consumers and bona fide producers and so on”.
But there were risks attached to regulation too, he said. “Regulation can fossilise current practice, making it difficult to secure change and improvement”. Regulation had also created a narrow focus on restricting chemical inputs (“favoured because it’s easy to audit”), and sometimes “produces black and white distinctions where grey might be more useful”.
Lampkin pointed out that “participation in organic is voluntary” – make it too prescriptive and people will start to turn away from it. Some voices in the organic movement, he said, were asking if regulation was even a threat to the organic idea. “Is it any longer an open-source, citizen-owned concept?”. He said that “new movements are forming as ways of rejecting the institutionalised organic model” and that these “new alternative models avoid using the term organic”.
Answering his own question – “what can regulation do to address this? – Lampkin said: “Regulation should not be a prison or straightjacket in what producers can do. Equally, it isn’t enough to get certified and think that is all you need to do. Organic should perform a teacher as well as policeman role and reward innovation and improved sustainability performance beyond minimum pass-fail requirements.
“Regulation should not be a prison or straightjacket in what producers can do”
“We need to build a a new partnership approach to regulation. We need to innovate ecologically as well as technologically. Organic hold a touch for farming on ecological innovation”.
Professor Nic Lampkin is executive director of the Organic Research Centre in the UK.